Zero Dark Thirty is an Oscar frontrunner, but what would Oscar season be without a dash of politics? In the taut thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow depict the American use of waterboarding leading to a suspect revealing crucial information. But the New Yorker has cast doubt on the veracity of that specific scene, citing government officials who claim that waterboarding — a controversial tactic that many consider torture — played no role in yielding useful evidence in that situation or ultimately helped the C.I.A. locate bin Laden’s hideout.
Boal, a former journalist, has defending the decision, arguing that “it’s a movie, not a documentary,” and the film’s main principals stood behind their work at last night’s Los Angeles premiere. “We had to compress a very complicated debate and a 10-year period into two hours,” Boal said. “It doesn’t surprise me that people bring political agendas to the film but it doesn’t actually have a political agenda. Its agenda is to tell these people’s stories in the most honest and factual way we know how, based on a ton of interviews and research.”
Bigelow thought that waterboarding was an essential — if unfortunate — aspect of the story, and she refused to flinch from the ugliness. “There’s definitely a degree to which I wish the torture and interrogation techniques weren’t a part of this narrative, but they were a part of history,” said the Oscar-winner, whose last film was the Iraq War drama, The Hurt Locker. “This is the hunt for this wanted man and these techniques were used along the way. It was part of the research, and had I not included it I would not be telling the full story of this manhunt.”
Jessica Chastain, who stars as the obsessed C.I.A. analyst driving the hunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, has discussed her professional discomfort with the filming of the scenes, but she complemented Boal and Bigelow for their dedication and suggested the film made great efforts to sidestep politics. “It is not a propaganda film. Kathryn didn’t want to make judgments about the events. She did her research. Mark did his research, and I have huge respect for a filmmaker that’s willing to put the difficult questions in the film.”
Jason Clarke, who plays the C.I.A. vet who doles out the enhanced interrogation on the Saudi suspect, called the filmmaking decision the “right choice,” and “as it happened, honest and true to that story,” but debate will surely continue. Military experts continue to disagree over the effectiveness of waterboarding since suspects have reportedly been known to admit to anything and everything while under such severe duress. A high-profile film like Zero Dark Thirty that seems to validate the practice could certainly impact public opinion about the technique, and if Boal and Bigelow’s scene is not 100 percent accurate — in fact and in spirit — then these questions can only be expected to grow louder as the film’s release date — and the Oscars — approach.
Reporting by Carrie Bell.